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June 01, 2005

Church Growth

Way back in the 1960s the School of World Mission began to explore churches that were growing, looking for reasons to explain the growth that was taking place. Their intentions were good: if we could explain why churches are growing, we might be able to apply these principles to other church communities and so fulfill the gospel commission. The birth of the Homogeneous Unit Principle caused somewhat of a stir, but also stirred the imaginations of pastoral leaders to think again about ways of reaching our communities with the message and love of Jesus. It seemed to be a new wonder drug. A quantum shift in thinking about church was born, and it did not take too long for the megachurch to appear. But has the wonder drug "Church Growth" been ultimately revealed as thalidomide for the church?

Thalidomide was a drug administered to mothers in the 1950s to overcome symptoms of morning sickness. It was considered a miracle drug, safely dealing with morning sickness. It was some time before the medical community identified its insidious side-effect: children were born without limbs, or with severely stunted limbs as a direct result. Thalidomide was consequently withdrawn from circulation.

The Church Growth movement's aim to assist churches in their ministry provided a catalyst for new thinking about mission: many churches changed their focus with renewed energy to reach the lost. The gospel commission came into renewed focus. A renewal within church mission was set in train. Pastors and church leaders across the Western World turned their focus either directly or incidentally to the challenges of the Church Growth movement.

And now we face a crisis of significant proportions in the Western church, where the emphasis is almost entirely on numerical growth as the measure of success for the church and its mission.

The pressure is on to generate growth in every church community, and the pastor's sense of success - along with the church - is wrapped up in numbers of baptisms, conversions and new members. The no longer subtle implication is that churches which are not growing numerically are somehow failing in their mission. At times this is directly spoken by leaders of larger churches.

As with thalidomide, we find that there is a greater emphasis on the larger body and less of an emphasis on its limbs at work in the world. The public image of these larger churches at least is tarnished and distorted, as the missions of evangelism and justice in and to other communities is only faintly mentioned in dispatches over against its internal growth. It eerily echoes the philosophy of the cancer cell: growth for its own sake, ultimately destroying the body and itself.

The pressure has contributed to the increasing turnover of pastoral leaders and, dare I suggest it, to the rapid churn rate of members in larger churches also. As with the whole, so with the parts - many members unable to find a wholistic and balanced growth within such a distorted larger body. All the while pastors and leaders of smaller churches in less fashionable areas, and culturally more disparate communities toil away faithfully without the same numeric results being possible.

The ultimate problem with it all is the implication that the method is much more important than God Himself. "If only we apply these strategies, the church will grow". Does God only work in one way? Where the ministry of Isaiah, who would proclaim the word of God until only a stump remained?

In recent years Thalidomide has re-entered circulation and is currently being assessed for its potential benefits for sufferers of leprosy, AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis and some cancers. In the same way that thalidomide has found a new place, less acclaimed, so I am suggesting that the church growth movement still offers useful insights into the mission of the church. But maybe in a different focus than seems to predominate today.

Posted by gary at June 1, 2005 12:35 PM

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